I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information including RA for All's EDI Statement.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

RA for All Road Show Visits Spartanburg County South Carolina

Today I am spending the day with library workers who provide adult RA Service from all over the Spartanburg County [SC] Library System. It’s my first ever trip to the state! Thanks for inviting me. 

This is a fun one because we are going to spend a lot of time actually talking about how they serve readers. We will begin with my keynote Rethink and then spend the rest of the day wrestling with the joy and frustration that is genre in great details. We will be talking about genre conventions and how to stay in genre shape, but it is the end of the day, when the attendees and I will work together to solve some of their trickiest real life patron questions, for which I am the most excited.

I will take notes on that conversation and share anything interesting here on the blog, but for now, here are all the links you need to follow along at home.

9:30-11am: RA Rethink: From Quaint and Comfortable to Cutting Edge:  You can live without a 3D printer, but without readers’ advisory, you’re not doing your job. Readers’ advisory belongs in every library, no matter your budget or size. A robust and modern program that embraces whole collection discovery is one that inspires staff, engages patrons, and builds stronger library communities. Reconnect with this core service and empower staff at all levels to connect users with your collection. RA expert Becky Spratford will offer “rethinks” that will harken back to the basics of this core service and incorporate 21st Century possibilities. SLIDES
11-11:15am BREAK
11:15am-12:30pm Demystifying Genre: How To Help Every Type of Reader [in three parts]: Nothing is scarier than trying to help a fan of a genre you yourself don’t enjoy. You want to help that, for example, Romance reader find the perfect book, but you are having trouble knowing where to begin because...eek!... you don’t read Romance. You are afraid they will find out you are a fraud. How can YOU possibly help THEM?!? Never fear, in this program, Readers’ Advisory expert, Becky Spratford, will teach you how to keep your genre knowledge up to date, explain the biggest trends in genre fiction, and share her time tested tricks for working with genre readers. You will leave this webinar with the confidence and skill to help fans of every genre, regardless of whether you have ever read a book in that genre. And that will leave a trail of happy patrons in your wake.
Part 1 will focus on genre conventions. SLIDES for Part 1
12:30-1:30pm- LUNCH

1:30-4 Demystifying Genre Parts 2 and 3-- Part 2 will focus on how to use resources, including NoveList to help genre readers. Part 3 will be workshop style. Please bring your real life questions, inquiries about helping difficult patrons, and most difficult RA concerns and we will work through them together. [There will be a 10 minute break during this afternoon session] SLIDES for Part 2

Monday, February 27, 2017

RA for All: Call to Action-- Go Visit a Library You Have Never Been To

Today I have a very simple Call to Action, but it is one that not enough of us do.

Go out of your way to visit a library you have never been to. Stop in and walk around like a patron. Look at how the books are organized, shelved, and displayed. Move through the space as a patron would. Use the signage, wander, browse.

But Becky that just sounds like fun.

It is fun. It is a good way to recharge your batteries, but it also an imperative continuing education tool.

I never realized how vital it is to look at the different ways a library could be until I got the chance to come visit libraries all over the country. I cannot exaggerate how much more I know now because of what I have seen. There are some great things happening at libraries, from huge to tiny, everywhere. I have seen small display ideas at one library that were awesome and super easy, yet I never would have thought of doing things that way. But I have also seen huge restructuring projects that reimagine library service on a grander scale. While these are less easy to transfer to any library, they have got me to rethink my assumptions of the way things "have" to be and have opened me up to make appropriate changes at my libraries.

But you don't have to go 1,000 miles away to get new ideas or even to shake yourself out of the complacency of "but this is how we have always done it." You don't even have to go to the hot, trendy library that is blowing up the library mold. Next time you are out and about just find the closest public library which you have never been to yourself, and pop in.

You will be surprised as to how much you learn. Not only do you get good ideas from others, but seeing how another library does something you also do will make you think about the choices you have made at your library. Many times you won't change what you are doing, and that is fine. But forcing yourself to think about the whys behind what you do is vital. Doing things the same way just because you have always done them that way and they seem to be working does not make for good service.

I can honest tell you that I have learned something from every single library I have visited. Each visit has made me better at what I do.

So get out there sometime soon and see a library with fresh eyes. See what they are doing without any knowledge as to their whys. Just look at it as a patron sees it. Then go back to your library and use the filter of that experience to give your own services and collections a fresh once over.

For more Call to Action posts, visit the archive here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Recent Awards Lists...Use to Help Readers!

Every time a new awards list comes out I feel like I am contractually obligated [to myself] to remind you that all awards lists can be used as a RA Tool. Click here for more details on that.

In that post, I talk about how awards finalist lists can help you to enhance your collections and help more readers. And, if you use the compound interest [or as I like to call it, the treasure trove] of past lists, you literally have thousands of titles at your fingertips.

This month we had three ballots come out that I want to alert you to. All fill a specific need for a genre or format question that I know you have had at the desk before. How do I know? Because I have had these questions many times.

Below I mention each, provide a bit of commentary, and a link to the full list of nominees.

The first is the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards for the best horror writing of the year. I wrote a much more detailed post about this year's list over on the horror blog. And this year, I have a personal stake in the outcomes. Oh, and so do you. What am I talking about? Click through and read that post for yourself to find out.

To stay on the genre theme, next are the Nebulas. The Nebulas are like the Stokers in that they are voted on by the writers, but in this case it is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The list is fantastic this year and there is even 1 title that overlaps with the Stokers.  See if you can find it for yourself.

And finally, from genre to format, the finalists for the Audies can be found here. Handed out by the Audio Book Publishers of America, this list is amazing. Not because of who is nominated, but because of its shear length and specificity. There are categories for the best audio books in all the major genres (although not horror which always makes me a little sad), but there are also categories based on who is narrating, how many people, the intended audience age level, and more. This is a list that is comprehensive and easy to use with readers who have specific audiobook needs.

Get out there and help a reader using one of these awards lists or any awards lists for that matter. And don't forget, while this year's nominees may be in high demand and checked out, there is always last year's list, or the year before's, or the year before that, or...oh, you get the point.

RA for All Roadshow Visits Messenger Public Library of North Aurora [IL]

This morning, the Messenger Public Library of North Aurora is closed until 1pm because I am coming to train their entire staff on the basics of RA and Booktalking.

Messneger is a place that wants to put their leisure readers first. I can get on board with that any day. We are going to have fun too, but not too much fun because due to construction on their library's meeting room, we are actually holding this training session at the police station.

Funny thing is, this is not the first time I have done a library training at the police station. [That is not a statement I ever thought I would make when I first started this consulting gig.]

But I digress. Here's our schedule with links for all attendees and those of you who like to follow along at home:

9-10:50: RA for All Signature Program which follows Becky's 10 Rules of Basic RA Service

11-11:50: Booktalking: Harnessing the Power of Sharing Books with Readers. The link to the slides is here. This version of the presentation includes a brand new booktalk and after it, an added slide with some more examples by me.

11:50-Noon: Creating Your Own Reader Profile which is an exercise I leave the group to complete in the weeks after my visit.

Noon- 1pm: Lunch for Staff

1pm: Back to work. Library reopens for patrons.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Brand New Genre Guide From NoveList

NoveList has just released their new Genre Guide and it is free to everyone and anyone! From their genre guide page:
A Guide to Genres and Book Discovery
This handy pocket guide describes the genres and subgenres in NoveList, and provides tips for using them to help readers.

From the introduction:
When a romance reader picks up a romance, she expects her heart to flutter as a couple finds their happily-ever-after. Horror readers expect their spines to tingle with terror. Mystery readers want to close a book knowing who the killer is. Whether a library puts stickers on the spines of books or has genre ed the collection, as professionals, librarians use genre to guide readers to their perfect book. 
The librarians at NoveList are no different. We understand that readers and librarians use genre as a shortcut to pick books and expect a particular reading experience. We understand that genre lines aren’t always clear. And we understand that readers are not likely to use the Library of Congress genre “Robinsonades” when looking for a survival story. 
With both the importance and the complication of genre in mind, we spend a lot of time making sure we get it right. In the past couple years, we've had several teams making sure headings are relevant and up to date. This means creating language to define new subgenres (rural noir), including new trends (new adult), using reader language instead of cataloger language (coming-of-age stories instead of bildungsroman), and grappling with books that cross boundaries (science fantasy). 
NoveList Genres: A Guide to Genres and Book Discovery is your guide to our hard work. We put careful thought into genre because we share your goal—matching the right reader to the right book. Genre isn’t the end-all to finding the right book and, when we’re making recommendations, we use this guide in conjunction with NoveList’s signature appeal language to make sure our suggestions are spot on. 
Genres in NoveList are a work in progress--and this is not a complete list just the most popular. Authors continue to expand and experiment and we continue to review and expand our genre headings. We always welcome feedback. Please feel free to share your thoughts and questions with us at novelist@ebsco.com
I have downloaded it and looked through it and I can tell you that this is a great tool. The genres are defined. Below subgenres are listed and also defined with a note as to which age level they apply to.

Here is a screen shot to serve as an example:

Besides the obvious genres like Science Fiction, Romance, etc... they also have multiple pages of genres that “don’t fit” into major categories, a section for comics and graphic novels, and “Library Search Helpers,” which include things that aren’t genres but we always search for like, adult books for young adults, books to movies, franchise books, translations, etc...

Click through to download it. It’s free and very helpful whether or not you have a subscription to the database.

This is a must read for everyone who works with leisure readers at all levels. Even experts like myself can always use a refresher. I am going to read up in preparation for a training I am running next week.

Why are you still here? Go here now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tales of the 5th/6th Grade Book Club: As Brave As You-- Week 4

Yesterday the group met to discuss Chapters 8-11 of As Brave As You.

Below I will recount what we discussed and how the meeting went without identifying any of the children, but please note that this is merely 1 of multiple meetings over which we will discuss the entire book. To access the full series of posts, use the 5th/6th gr book club tag.

Now on to the discussion:

  • Last week we met Grandpop’s birds in his inside outside room. This week we learned they were named for the Jackson 5, and we saw the littlest one, Michael Jackson, die.
    • As one kid said, "Michael Jackson, we barely knew you.”
    • We talked about how while Genie did actually poison MJ, it was an honest accident. None of us knew that apple seeds would kill a bird. 
    • The kids were intrigued that the real Michael Jackson is dead too. And that, in a way, the person died be being”poisoned” too. 
    • Someone brought up that Genie learned that barn swallows are often seen to symbolize and honor the dead. Genie is worried that Grandpop saw MJ as a symbol for Wood.
    • But, someone else added, we don’t known if Grandpop knows that.
    • It is similar to the broken truck. Genie is worried how Grandpop will react but we have no idea.
  • What about Genie and Ernie’s idea to go to the old yellow house and catch a bird to replace the dead MJ without telling Grandpa?
    • There will definitely be a problem with that.
    • They might get a bird and replace MJ but Grandpop will figure it out.
    • Lying won’t work. This is a kids’ book. They won’t get away with it.
    • Something bad will happen while they are in the house.
    • When they go and try, it will get “interesting.”
    • They will have an adventure for sure. And we get to read about it.
  • Is Genie really “bad luck” like he thinks?
    • He is a city boy living in the country. His city ways don’t work here. They cause problems and make him think he has bad luck.
    • We talked at length about this aspect. Since our group is made up of all “city kids,” they are really feeling the fish out of water aspect of this novel. This came up later too.
  • Why did Grandpop cry when Genie took him outside?
    • He missed it so much.
    • He knows he is outside and can’t see it. It is really hitting him.
    • The other parent leader added, “I think his crying is for something deeper, something we don’t know about yet.”
    • We all thought about this. He did seem very emotional and insisted on changing the subject.
    • We agreed to file this observation away for later.
  • Tess’s Mom!
    • We finally met her.
    • She is mentally ill but not in a scary way, in an odd way.
    • Genie tells Tess he thinks she is a hypochondriac. But we talked about how it is more complicate than that.
    • She isn’t mean, she is just weird.
    • She is so different from what all of us would think of as a “mom.”
    • She's the opposite of Tess and Crab in every way.
    • But it is clear both Tess and Crab love her and care for her well being but maybe the fact that they stay away from her so much makes her worse- she is ill yes, but also wants their attention.
  • One of our participants is very interested in how Genie’s questions relate to the entire story. [rightly so] She brought a few up. She started with one on page 177- “How do birds heal themselves? How can you be trapped and safe at the same time?”
    • So I asked them-- who in this book is trapped and safe?
    • Tess’ mom for sure. Her condition keeps her trapped at home but Tess and Crab keep her safe.
    • Grandpop
    • The Jackson 5 birds [except MJ who died]
    • Genie’s parents
    • Even Genie and Ernie are trapped. Trapped in the country, but safe.
    • Then the adults added-- aren’t lots of people trapped and safe at the same time. Adults have to decide how much risk to take. Life is about navigating this big question. How to live but still be safe.
  • Another question from page 163 is about how everyone’s point of view is different. We talked about that in relation to different characters. The same events and situations are seen differently by the different characters.
  • The Flea Market!
    • This was another instance when our city kid readers felt out of place. None of them knew what a flea market was nor had they been to one.  They had all been to Farmer’s Markets or craft fairs but nothing like this.
    • We talked about the place and what they bought and then moved on to Bink.
    • Grandma tells Genie that Bink sells “Good Luck.”
    • Genie thinks he has bad luck. We predict he will go back next time to buy some of Bing’s Good Luck.
    • But what would good luck be that you could buy? Predict.
      • a pill that you think will work but is really nothing
      • compliments
      • he is going to be selling a thing of some kind.
  • We ended by talking about how everyone mentioned that the story felt like it was building to something big.
    • I pointed out that it is clear that in this section we have now been introduced to all of the key players and places. It is time for the book to move up to the big event quickly.
    • The kids took turns speculating on what was going to happen, conflict wise.
      • On the back cover, one of Genie’s questions is about why a good dog would bite someone. Prediction that Samantha will bite someone. Maybe Ernie. Ernie did buy Samantha a bite toy at the flea market.
      • Something is going to happen with the gun. Crab and Grandpop talked about making Ernie a man on this birthday. His birthday is soon-- July 4th. That’s already a big day. 
      • The yellow house is going to be where a big secret is uncovered. It is Grandpop’s childhood home.
      • The dead bird! They will replace MJ but they will be found out too.
      • What about their parents? Will they work out their problems.  Things were weird on the phone for sure.
      • We all need to keep reading....
Next week the group will be discussing chapters 12-14 [pages 212-69]; however I will be in South Carolina running a training during the next book club meeting.  So the reports will be back here on the blog in 2 weeks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Great Idea: One Book One Garden

Last year I was approached by The Chicago Botanic Gardens Lenhardt Library to help them start a brand new program entitled, One Book One Garden. The Lenhardt Library is international known for their rare book collection. They are very generous with how they share these materials both digitally and in person. 
However, the staff of this wonderful treasure of a library want to expand their reach and not only share their old, rare books, but also, start current conversations surrounding books about nature. To that end they have begun One Book One Garden.
They knew that people are always interested in seeing their unique collections, but often could not make their daytime open hours. They also knew that there were many popular science books focused on nature that fit with the Botanic Garden’s mission. They also already knew the Garden hosted many special events at all hours. So, why not have a series of evening book discussions at their special library? 
Way to think outside the box. Also, way to think about how to serve the entire community better. Science based conversations are obviously lacking out in the lay world, and we are now seeing the negative consequences of that in the political sphere. And without public funds, science suffers. They know this at the Chicago Botanic Garden. They have a successful outreach program which gives discounted visits to all Chicagoland residents through their public library cards. They understand that if the public cannot come to see what science is in their real life, how can we expect them to support it, let alone understand it.
The only thing they were missing to make this all happen was book discussion leadership experience. That’s where I come in. They contacted me and we set dates for March and November 2017. But the ultimate goal is for this to be a self sustaining program for them. So, staff from their library came to my RAILS book discussion leadership training. I will help them get this program off the ground. I am so excited for them.
I applaud the Lenhardt for starting a larger community conversation about natural science through book discussions. They want to invite anyone and everyone to participate and I am proud to be associated with these programs. 
I am also happily surprised at how quickly it is already filling up. As I have already mentioned, I really believe that 2017 is going to be a comeback year for the book discussion. So far, I appear to be correct in that prediction. Book discussions may be our only hope to start having conversations as a country- conversations where we actually listen to each other and don’t just have knee jerk responses to everything. Learning and change requires a two way conversation.
Today, I am posting the details on the specific discussion I will be leading next month in case you are able to sign up. [November’s details are not ready yet.] The Lenhardt has actively reached out to local public libraries. They really want these conversations to include as many different people from different experiences and places as possible. 
This is also commendable and one of the other reasons I am posting this today. All of you out there reading this, somewhere near you there is a special library that you could contact to work with. As a public library you are uniquely situated to help start conversations in the community. As a special library they bring something specialized to the conversation. Working together you can start a community conversation be it through a book discussion like this or just a program.
Use the Botanic Garden’s example to inspire you to reach out and work together too. All it takes is one phone call or email. That’s how we started. And what your community will gain is immesaurable. 
Here [and below] is all the info from their website. I hope to see some of you there. And if you live somewhere else and are doing a similar type program, please let me know.
Join us for a discussion of Andrea Wulf’s most recent book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.
One Book One Garden

One Book One Garden

Tuesday, March 14, 2017
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Lenhardt Library
Free; pre-registration required
Join us for our new program, One Book One Garden—a book discussion at the Lenhardt Library.
One of the New York Times' Top 10 Books of 2015, our featured book is acclaimed author Andrea Wulf’s most recent journey of discovery, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.
Wulf brings to life Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. Humboldt’s life was filled with adventure and discovery and he translated his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Called “the Shakespeare of the sciences” by his contemporaries, he inspired scientists, thinkers and writers including Darwin, Wordsworth and Jules Verne. Largely forgotten—despite his name gracing numerous towns, counties, bays, lakes, mountains, animals and more—Andrea Wulf’s in-depth research and compelling writing shows the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the world.
Selections from the Lenhardt Library’s Rare Book Collection related to Alexander von Humboldt will be available for viewing during the program.
The Invention of Nature Book CoverOur discussion will be led by reader’s advisor, Becky Spratford, who trains library staff all over the world to match books with readers and lead book discussions. Please register early as space is limited.
The Invention of Nature won the Costa Biography Award 2015, the 2016 LA Times Book Prize for Science and Technology, and was selected by New York Times “10 Best Books of 2015.” Read the Times review here
Andrea Wulf is the author of five books, including The Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners. She has written for The New York Times, the Financial TimesThe Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Wulf is also the winner of the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016 for The Invention of Nature.

Friday, February 17, 2017

RA for All Roadshow Visits Loudoun County [VA] Public Library Teen Services Staff Retreat

Today I am appearing virtually to deliver a live program to the teen services staff of the multi-branch Loundoun County [VA] Public Library. We will be doing my RA for All Signature program which follows Becky's Ten Rules of Basic RA Service.

This program is quite easy for me to deliver live from afar. It is just as instructive and inspiring, but without the travel, it is also much cheaper. 

Another perk for everyone reading this today, attendees and non-attendees, is that since we are dealing with teen services, I also promised to include a list of RA resources for helping teen readers.

You can find that below. Now let’s get the learning started.

Becky’s Favorite RA Resources for Teens

All of the following resources are ones I use to both educate myself on the biggest trends AND to identify books that are perfect for display, booklists, or to actively suggest to readers.
  • Teen Services Underground: Their mission, "To support, promote, advocate, and build a community space to highlight the importance of Teen Services in minding the gap.” They have a strong focus on RA including this archive of RA Tools and Advice. Go here first. They are on top of trends and have very useful lists and links. The site is well organized and easy to navigate.
  • SLJ’s Teen Librarian Toolbox: Their mission, "Teen Librarian Toolbox (TLT) is a professional development website for teen librarians, created by Karen Jensen and collecting the experience of four MLS librarians and over 50 collective years of library work. Our mission is to to help libraries serving teens (and anyone who cares about teens) and to foster a community of professional development and resource sharing by providing quality information, discussions, book reviews and more.  We welcome guest posts and our book review policy can be found here.  We are available for presentations, seminars, and consulting on a limited basis. Contact us for more information.” The inclusion of reviews by actual teens is a plus here.
  • YALSA: You are probably a member, but do you take advantage of ALL of the wonderful book lists. I use them when I am stuck for a suggestion, especially the older lists. Teens love it when you can find a good read for them that they knew nothing about. And since kids age out of Teen Services so quickly, a list from only 3 years ago can be your secret weapon suggestion.
  • NoveList Plus: You guys have a subscription. The Teen content is very helpful, not only to look up books, but also, the training materials that are specifically geared toward explaining genres and trends for a Teen audience. The ARRT YA Popular Fiction List is also available for free on NoveList. So use it! 
  • Keep track of Adult books that would work for teens. Crowd source your own lists to add to ones like the Alex Award or Booklist’s Editors Choice Adult Books for Young Adults. Compile these somewhere in the cloud [Goodreads, Tumblr, Blog] where you, your staff, the adult staff, and the teens can all easily access the titles. Linking them to the catalog record is also a great idea. This will allow teens to more easily help themselves in the adult fiction area, but also, it will make it easier for the adult staff when teens come a knocking. 
  • Of special interest- “How To Use Snapchat for Readers’ Advisory” from SLJ and Heather Booth’s Keynote on serving Teens from ARRTapolooza.

I also have a few Teen Service Pro-Tips to share:
  • If you can, put all formats of books together in teen areas. The book, audiobook, graphic novel adaptation, and QR codes for downloadables all on the shelf together [where applicable]. A book to today’s teen is about the content NOT the format. Format is irrelevant. They dont want to move throughout your building to 10 different place for the same “book."
  • Put as many books on display as possible, but don’t spend a ton of time on signage. Simply put out a picture or a few words and then place some books nearby. Then, encourage the teens to add to the displays. They should be invited to pull books out of the collection that they think fit your current theme.
  • As you are booktalking to teens in the stacks, DO NOT hand them the books you are trying to handsell. Grab a book off the shelf, provide a quick appeal based soundbite and then simply place the book down on any flat surface and walk on the the next title. Pull that one off the shelf and repeat. Do not worry about scattering books everywhere. Simply walk away after you have book talked a few and go back to what you were doing. There is a higher chance the teen will actually take at least one of these haphazardly scattered title home with this method. Later, you can go back and straighten up the books that are left behind. Although leaving them out might mean that kid who doesn’t talk to you will find a good book too. If it is out of place, someone will pick it up and give it a second look. Just embrace the chaos and put whatever unshelved titles are still out on a cart before you close for the night.
  • Start a big buddy program where teens can help match younger kids with books. Teens providing RA to kids. They can do it in person or virtually, with reviews, lists, or annotations. Or simply ask them to create displays in the Youth Department. You will learn a lot more about their reading habits and what really appeals to them by having them think about their favorite books of just a few years ago. [This advice is very similar to the appeal exercise I have done with you today.] Pay attention to what they want younger kids to read and use that information to help identify books for the teens to read now. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Discussion: In the Time of the Butterflies

On February 10th, I was in Lawrence, KS leading a regional, full day training for library workers. You can see all of the details, slides, and handouts here.

As part of the event, participants were promised, “A book discussion of In the Time of the Butterflies led by Becky.” There was one small problem with this promise-- we had 100 people attend. Below is a picture of the room, taken from the back just before lunch. It doesn’t even capture all of the tables.

But never fear, I am not a book discussion expert in name only. Before the event, Polli Kenn, Director of Readers Services for Lawrence Public Library and I put our heads together and came up with a plan that worked. As you can see here in the full day schedule, we had asked the participants to come to the event ready to share some of their favortie book club title suggestions, especially those that were a bit more "under the radar." We already had a plan for people to be placed at smaller tables for the entire day to encourage this small group conversation. We had also already planned to ask them to have one person be the table's secretary and record these titles so that we could all get a much larger list of crowd-sourced titles to share after the event [by the way, that list can now be viewed, here].

So, since we had smaller group discussions already planned out, I suggested we also start the book discussion at these tables.  Here is what we did:
  • After they finished their title sharing, I directed each table to begin the book discussion, but they needed a note taker who was willing to report back to the entire group.
  • I asked them to take the liked, disliked, or so-so vote with which I begin all of my book discussions first.
  • Then, I wanted each table to have a chance to bring up the things that they were most happy or least happy about in the book. The overwhelming issues and topics that they were most eager to discuss.
  • They had about 10-15 minutes to do this.
  • Next, after a quick break, we would begin the group discussion by having each table have a chance to report.
  • This way I could identify the major issues that this group was most passionate about, I could take the temperature of the room in terms of how they felt about the book, and most importantly, I could whittle down the size of the group from 100 separate people to 12 groups of people. 
  • I had a way to address 12 "people" instead of 100 AND each person in each of those 12 tables had a chance to have their voice and opinion heard.
  • As I went around during the discussion and said things like, "but table 3 seemed to like the character you at table 6 most disliked," the person at table 3 who expressed that opinion earlier, the private conversation, could speak up.
Below, I will give the detailed report on the discussion we had. I am happy to say it went very well, and I gained a whole new skill-- leading a 100 person book discussion in which every single person had a chance to participate. It worked so well, I would be willing to try it again. 

One last thing before I begin with what we discussed, here are the links to the Pre-discussion Handout I created and the NEA Big Read info on In the Time of the Butterflies. We discussed this book because it is currently the "One Book, One Lawrence" discussion title. Julia Alvarez will be visiting them in March too. I also used these questions from the Chicago Public Library to help me prepare.

Ok, let's do this book discussion report---

Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) is a work of historical fiction based on the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, who participated in underground efforts to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's three-decade-long dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa—were slain on Trujillo's orders on November 25, 1960. Their story haunted Alvarez, whose own family had fled the Dominican Republic just three months earlier in fear that her father's participation in the resistance would make him a target of Trujillo. 
The novel is both an homage to the bravery and sacrifice of the Mirabal family and a literary work of high grace. The first chapter begins in 1994 when a young Dominican-American writer, a gringa dominicana, visits the surviving sister, Dedé Mirabal, at the sisters' childhood home, which has been turned into a museum. Exhausted by the steady stream of pilgrims who have visited her in the thirty-four years since her sisters' deaths, Dedé reluctantly begins to tell the story of a family entwined with the political turmoil of their country. 
In the body of the book, narrated in turn by each of the four sisters, Alvarez brings them to life, skillfully telling the story of four young girls who come of age wanting the same things most young women hope for: love, family, and freedom. Each of the sisters chooses to join the revolution in her own time—even Dedé, the one who lives to tell the tale and admits she only got involved "when it was already too late." 
Scattered through the girls' stories are glimpses of a nation under siege, where the simplest liberties have been stripped away. We learn the details of the Butterflies' martyrdom slowly and, as it emerges from its chrysalis, readers find a story that spreads its wings, pauses to breathe the air of freedom, and gently takes flight.
Discussion time:
  • I will begin with the report from each table. There are 12.
  • Table 1: Vote- mostly so-so with a lot of did not finish [herein dnf]. Comments: There were too many voices. It was hard to follow the story because of all the bouncing around. One person listened to the audiobook and found it easier to follow the 4 different narrators because the audio used different actors for each. I found it hard to follow because I am so unfamiliar with the history and the book did not fill in the details- it was about the characters so we didn't get that backstory.
  • Table 2: Vote- ranged from liked it to so-so. All of the historical info Table 1 wanted was in the back of the book. I would have liked it better if that were moved to the front. I struggled with how much was fact and how much was fiction. I was really interested in how the book illustrates the different ways a person becomes politicized.
  • Table 3: Ditto to Table 2. Mostly liked to so-so. Maybe more liked. We also most liked the Mate portions in diary form.
  • Table 4: So-sos all around. The way the story was told humanized them, but it was so hard to follow. Also we struggled with the history vs fiction issues here.
  • Table 5: Spilt down the middle, 2 liked, 2 disliked, and 3 so-so with a lot of dnf. One lady wanted to share that she was so-so until the ending. The ending transformed the entire book for her. Maybe if the others finished, it would do the same for them.
  • Table 6: Mostly liked with 1 or 2 so-so. There was a choppiness with the characters and time periods fluctuating  but it was so beautifully written. It also started very slow. We knew from the first lines that the girls would become political and die for their cause, but it took a while to get there. I liked the history-political-personal mix of the narrative. I could see a lot of political discussion happening around this book, ones that would be very different today in 2017 than when the book first came out in the 1990s.
  • Table 7: Mostly so-so because all dnf. Since we knew the ending-- they all die but 1-- from the first page, most of us didn't feel compelled to finish. But 1 person did comment that she really liked the writing style.
  • Table 8: Two liked and 6 so-so. Most of them preferred the stories as they were told in the real time timeline-- the one in the past, as the action was unfolding. The framing with Dede's flashback was confusing, especially because she has a story in that past time line too. Again the issue of fact vs fiction. Someone wanted to point out that this book discusses the impact of how "you treat women." Their brutal deaths made the country respond.
  • Table 9: Mostly liked. What they liked: the historical setting, connections to the author's own life, the girls last influence viz-a-vie International Violence Against Women Day and the parallels to today. Also, they wanted to discuss each girl's reason for joining the resistance. Each had a different reason and they were not all "equal."
  • Table 10: The finishers liked it, the so-so votes dnf. I didn't like Dede and she opened the novel. I couldn't get into her so I couldn't get into the book. We were all interested in what drove each woman to "the Revolution."
  • Table 11: Mostly so-so because dnf. I like Dede. Table 10 thought she was weak, I did not. I thought she was very strong. 
  • Table 12: Mostly liked but were concerned on where to start when discussing this with a group. In their small group they couldn't get away from the dictatorship issues and how to discuss it without bringing up current American politics. I told them-- good thing you are last because we are going to do that now.
  • From these reports I noted the most pressing issues and ideas that I was going to pursue with the entire group. Basically, their reports gave me the question list. If ever there was a time for me to take my own advice about going with the flow and letting the group direct the discussion, it was now.  Here is that summary of their initial reactions:
    • Spending time on each "butterfly" because different tables had different favorites and/or least favorites
    • Tackling the fact that we had mostly so-sos and a lot of "did not finish.” Why?
    • The issue of historical fiction and how much needs to be real
    • How Alvarez told to tell this story-- four different voices alternating.
    • That lady at Table 5 who said the ending transformed the entire book for her! I made a note to go back to her when we discussed the ending.
  • Question: Dede came up a few times. People like and dislike her. She frames the novel and she is the one who lives. Let's talk about her
    • People brought up her marriage. Some thought she was being ruled by her husband too much, but others thought she was being true to herself with not joining the revolution.
    • A few people mentioned the premonition of their father who said Dede would bury them all... 
    • People liked to see that she became the mother to all of her nieces and nephews. 
    • But she was so different from the other girls. Not just in the fact that she survived. It was harder for some people to latch on to her narration because of this.
  • Question: Let's give the other butterflies a turn. Minerva seems to have the most comments when we went around. Who wants to talk about her?
    • A hand shot up immediately, "I want to be her." This started a Minerva love-fest
    • She had the right arguments
    • She was bold
    • She stood up for what was right
    • She spoke her mind
    • This carried through to the people she loved. She fell in love with revolutionaries. Her relationships were based on that first and foremost.
    • She stood out from a young age as different and not belonging in the traditional woman's world.
    • She was a revolutionary first, and a person second
    • But all of this put her family at great risk. Her father's death very early on was indirectly caused by Minerva's actions at the banquet with Trujillo. For some people, that was a big flaw and they did not like her as much.
  • Question: Patria's turn
    • She was a mother and sister first and a revolutionary second. Big different from Minerva.
    • I found her to be the most compelling because her transformation to a revolutionary was so unexpected.
    • Minerva was a “badass.” She was always going to join something. But Patria is so earnest, spiritual, and thoughtful. She joined because she had no choice. She witnessed the atrocities of Trujillo while on a religious retreat. After that she was 100% in on the revolution. She was compelled to join. 
    • It showed that you don’t have to be a super-human Minerva type person to be politicized and to make a difference. You just have to be yourself.
    • She was the most relatable- someone said.
  • Question: Mate's turn
    • I loved her diary entries. She was always such a girly-girl. They made for a nice break.
    • She was so young when her part of the story began. That meant we got to see the most growth in her as a person- from child to adult. From baby sister to wife and mother.
    • I also liked the diary as a way to tell the story. It was less choppy because the long stretches of time could be easily explained as she wasn’t writing in it. Made more sense than how the other girls’ stories flowed.
  • Question: Anyone else you want to mention?
    • Lena, Minerva’s school friend at the start who goes on to be a mistress to Trujillo. I started to love her but then her story was dropped completely. When she went away I was done with the book. 
    • Maybe she was a metaphor for the thousands of people Trujillo “disappeared.” They were there one minute and then gone forever.
  • We decided that the four sisters were all so different and had such different reasons for joining the revolution that this might be why many found the novel so choppy. The story is not straightforward and easy because revolutionary are not straightforward or easy. But telling the story this way gives a fuller picture of how complex these issues are without bogging the narrative down with facts. The story was told through the women.
  • Question: This seemed like the perfect time to bring up the concerns about how much was fact and how much was fiction.
    • I started this part of the discussion off by asking for a show of hands as to how many people read historical fiction for fun. And of those, how many were the ones worried about this question? There were very few hands that stayed up.
    • Then I asked of those who don't normally read or enjoy historical fiction, how many of you were consumed with this question? A bunch of hands stayed up. It seemed that most (but not all) of the people who were most bothered by the fact vs fiction debate were also not regular historical fiction readers.
    • One person did chime in-- I read a lot of historical fiction and it did bother me but I think that is because I usually stay away from historical fiction about real life people.
    • That is a big distinction here. This book is all about actual people, people who are famous. This made the fact vs fiction debate stronger for many readers.
    • I loved the connections with Alvarez’s own story. As I read, I was able to not be bothered by everything Alvarez made up about their home life because I imagined that she was putting stories and experiences from her life into the Butterflies’ story. It made the book special for me. It was like she was sharing her own story in telling their story for the world.
    • In genreal, historical fiction sparks something in me when I read and I am driven to look up more on my own. I spent a lot of time looking things up for this book. I enjoy that.
    • I always look as reading as a mirror OR a window. Historical fiction for me is a window. I read it to learn about a world I will never know. This book was a great window.
    • I didn’t care if the details were correct or not but that was because these women have already been mythologized in their country’s history and in world history [as the reason for the date of International Violence Against Women Day]. They aren’t that “real” anymore. Their story has been coopted by others. For good, but still, they are no longer “real.”
    • The reason I liked Dede the most is because she is the only one left-- the only real one.
    • I don’t know anything about the Dominican Republic. With this book being so personal with such a tiny point of view [this one family and only the daughters], I was struggling to get a sense of the larger picture as I read. Yes I could look it up, but I wanted the book to give me more of that larger picture.
  • Question: Why did Alvarez choose to start the novel with the ending-- letting the reader know that all of the sisters but Dede would be killed?
    • It’s an old trick. That’s how Romeo and Juliet started.
    • I think this may be the reason that many people stopped reading. It was taking too long to get to them joining the revolution and eventually dying, and since I knew that was what was going to happen, why keep going?
    • If I didn’t like how the story was told, I could stop because I knew what would happen.
    • But, I went back to the lady who said the ending “transformed” the entire book for her. She said it made it all the more tragic and heartbreaking. Seeing how the girls themselves  were over being revolutionaries, yet they were still an inspiration to the entire country, and they were still killed. That was surprising.
    • Also, staring with the information that they would be killed gives us the same information as a reader from the DR would have had as they began this book. 
    • This information up front means we can’t hope for the best. We need to know this is bad. No romanticizing. 
    • You just start to like one of them and then you remember, oh she is going to be killed.
    • It is like the entire novel is the “frog in the pot” metaphor symbolizing what a dictatorship does. The girls are gently warming up, not knowing they are going to die. Then they have to decide to hop out or stay. That is what it is like for people living with a dictator. The story is slow because that’s how it felt for them-- it all changed so slowly that it took each person living under Trujillo a different amount of time to be pushed to the brink.
    • The whole book is about the choice between making concessions or being a hero.
  • Question: Why is how and when they died significant?
    • At the point when they were murdered, all three Butterflies had stopped actively rebelling. They were tired, under house arrest and didn’t have the desire to fight anymore.
    • Did Trujillo think it was “safe” to kill them then? Get them out of the way.
    • But why? They weren’t a threat anymore. He did have a lot of paranoia.
    • They were a symbol after their imprisonment and their husbands’ continued imprisonment. They were inspiring thousands just because they lived. 
    • They were a symbol of hope. 
    • He was assassinated by his own people soon after. Maybe his murder of the Butterflies was the last straw.
  • Question: What else do people want to talk about? Both things we already talked about AND new things.
    • We discussed men in hispanic culture and the machoism.
      • It was significant that the Butterflies’ dad only had daughters. Even with his mistress, only daughters.
      • It meant there was no rivalry too. These girls could be strong because there were no sons.
    • This novel showcases that there is social value in storytelling. Alvarez has helped many women and revolutionaries by sharing this story from her country.
    • I didn’t fall in love with the girls like other people did. I just didn’t care. I wanted to care more because their story was so tragic. I am not sure why this happened. Although maybe if I saw them from an outside perspective and not only their perspectives, I would have felt more of an attachment to them.
    • This book made me really understand the thousands of people Trujillo “disappeared.” It was awful and for so long.
    • We really need to understand that the “Revolution” never really was successful. They wanted to be communist. As Americans, we also got our hands dirty in their history. They are doing okay now, but it is as our luxury vacation place. Is that what the Butterflies sacrificed for? Who knows. 
Readalikes: I prepared a handout with readalikes, but since I usually post readalikes in the book discussion report, I have added them here at the end too.

If you enjoyed In the Time of the Butterflies you may also like… 
Suggested by Becky: 
Even though the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz pokes fun at how everything Americans know about Trujillo comes from In the Time of the Butterflies, like the best jokes, it is funny because it is based in truth. Reading these two books, written 13 years apart, provides a fuller picture of the horrors of the Trujillo years and their enduring legacy across time and space.  
Alvarez is often compared to Isabel Allende mostly because they are both female, Latina, literary giants, but because Allende almost always employs a heavy dose of magical realism in her writing, while Alvarez’s work, is soberingly realistic, I find that they often do not make for a good match. However, in Ines of My Soul, Allende broke from her normal magical realism style, writing a historically accurate novel about the Spanish conquerors of Chile in the 1500s told from the point of view of Ines Suarez who was a both a witness to and a participant in this struggle. This is an Allende novel I would have no problem handing over to Alvarez fans. 
Those who are looking for a newer, Latina voice should try, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Using a similar, lyrical, compelling and moving voice to Alvarez, Henriquez looks at the lives of immigrants who have come from all over Central and South America and now find themselves living in the same Delaware apartment building. Their histories in their home countries and their current lives in America are presented using a unique style which includes multiple points of view.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic memoir of the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of the author, who was a teenager at the time. The time and place are very different, but the life or death struggle is, sadly, all too similar. 
The Round House by Louise Erdrich may be set on a North Dakota reservation in the 1980s, but in both theme and writing style it shares much with Alvarez’s novel, as is illustrated by this statement from the National Book Foundation about The Round House upon it receiving the 2012 National Book Award:
"In this haunting, powerful novel, Erdrich tells the story of a family and community nearly undone by violence. Using the quiet, reflective voice of a young boy forced into an early adulthood following a brutal assault on his mother, Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offersa portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories."
If you enjoyed In the Time of the Butterflies you may also like… 
Suggested by NoveList*: 
All Souls' Rising by Madison Smartt BellA novel dealing with earlier revolution on the other half of the island, Haiti. Full of racial and colonial issues that are absent from the Alvarez novel, it is similar in being built on a historical basis, and populated with real figures from the past (e.g. Toussaint L'Ouverture). They Forged the Signature of God by Viriato SencionA translation of a Latin American bestseller, it follows Dominican political events closer to the present day, from the perspective of three seminary students.  
Geographies of Home by Loida Maritza PerezA powerful examination of a Dominican family in the United States, it examines the sometimes violent forces that both tear people apart and force them together. 
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Llosa VargasBoth titles explore the horrors of the totalitarian Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, depicting the historical significance of the time and its effects on families and individuals. 
Memories from Cherry Harvest by Amy WachspressDespite different settings, these two engaging literary novels are both about women -- sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies; succeeding generations in Memoirs from Cherry Harvest -- fighting political injustice in the 20th century. 
Perla by Carolina De RobertisThese lyrical coming-of-age stories focus on the experiences of women (in Argentina and the Dominican Republic), whose lives intersect with brutal dictatorships and state-sanctioned murders of political dissidents. Overlap between domestic and political spheres puts a human face on tragedy. 
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverThese lyrically intense novels depict sisters growing up foreign countries with backdrops of political upheaval, with one taking place in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo's reign of terror; and the other about missionaries in the Congo. 
*Suggestions combined from current Title Read-alikes and Discussion Guide from 2000.